Ann and I drove into the depths of Boston via a route we had planned on rough maps. We had to rework our plan again and again as we fumbled our way through commuter-filled streets, missing turns and street names. Goals for the day: meet my friend Michelle, see a few museums, and then set off in separate directions. Somehow we managed to find each other and settled in for an intense discussion-filled breakfast. The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum was first on our museum list. Wow! To her detriment (and I know I’ll be hit for this statement) Isabella was a persistent Red Sox fan, but she was also an amazing collector/curator. She decreed that the location of all the art in her house could not change and then gave her house to the public. There are empty spots on a wall where two paintings were stolen years ago, not to be replaced or altered. The inner courtyard was peaceful, moist, and second and third floor doorways offered amazing views into it.
After yet another discussion-filled meal at the nearby Boston Museum of Fine Art, Ann went south to Woods Hole, leaving Michelle and I to wander through the art and history displayed at the museum. Then, we also headed south, but towards Washington, D.C... via a complex route which included a visit to a cousin in southern New Hampshire on Wednesday night followed by an uncle in Worster, Massachusetts, and Michelle's parents in Rhode Island on Thursday. Friday we passed New York City, stopping at the Newark bus station to collect my brother Sam, and finally arrived in D.C. to meet my father Tom and step-mom Abbe for dinner Friday night. Sam and I had an excellent dinner with Tom and Abbe at the M&S Grill, catching up on the months since we had last seen each other. It was a fine end to a whirlwind drive!
Let the games begin! A bright, sunny day welcomed us to Washington, D.C., home to the US Capitol, the Smithsonian, the White House, government departments beyond imagination, and monuments galore. The cross-nation Tour of Hope with Lance Armstrong was finishing that morning at the White House. This was the second time in only a few months I had seen Lance in action, though the two examples were drastically different. Inspiring!
The Washington Monument had a huge white wall around it to remind visitors not to carry missiles or other weapons of mass destruction anywhere near it, just in case. Uninspiring! How security conscious can a civilization become and still honor its citizens? We looped past the Mall with all of the Smithsonian buildings and came upon the incongruous sight of a reflecting pool filled with people, not water. A new WWII memorial being constructed at the east end of the pool required a temporary evacuation. In the meantime, the people of the nation put the new National Walkway to good use, even testing the surface for bicycle racing.
The Lincoln Memorial was as impressive as ever. It seems that the age of spectacular Presidents, people who truly led the nation through nation-altering affairs, is fading into distant memory. Or maybe it isn't over. We just haven't seen a president in a while that shares the stature, complexity and challenges of Jefferson, Lincoln, or Roosevelt, to name just a scant few.
The Vietnam Memorial was the biggest surprise for me. It was amazing what education, emotion and perspective was highlighted by the 15-year gap between my last visit and this one. I don't remember the Vietnam Memorial being a place of interest those years ago. It was remarkable to watch a man in a ball cap, close-cropped hair and expressionless face walk up to the wall; to watch his face change and hear his voice express an emotion so powerful, so overwhelming. It gave me hope to see that powerful a memory. I hope that an older generation can teach a younger one the necessary evils of conflict. I don't know that the entire emotion can be carried from generation to generation, but I hope that the strength of memory tempers the quest for physical conflict resolution. I hope also that mankind doesn't loose sight of the purity of action and let bureaucracy and rhetoric distance us too far from necessary action. Hope for a constantly evolving balance of patience and effectiveness.
We wandered away from the starkness of the Vietnam Memorial, through the Korean Memorial, and upon a surprise. The FDR Memorial was not marked on any maps we had, yet there it stood, a giant maze of quotes, pictures, and waterfalls. A tribute to the man who captured a nation's gratitude through 4 elections, across 13 years, and led that nation through incredibly destitute and powerful moments.
A foot and emotional rest break from the overwhelming nature of National Policy spawned silly faces for Michelle.
My last visit 15 years ago was with a high-school choir on a blossom-filled spring day. Because of performances, we did a round of memorial visits in the dark. I had Handel's Messiah with me on tape and happened to walk into the Jefferson Memorial as the Hallelujah chorus soared through my tiny earphones. Oh my gosh! There is something entrancing about a huge, bronze statue that captures the power of a nation-builder, especially so when accompanied by the magic of music celebrating greatness. I didn't have that music with me this time, but I could hear it. I did have my camera, though (well, Sam did). We finished our tour loop back at the Mall, stopping for some tasty hotdogs. The Wonder Bread-like buns could use some serious upgrading, though. The squirrels cheerfully offered to share our snack with us as long as we didn't share theirs.
Michelle and I visited more cousins that night far out by Chesapeake Bay, experiencing the Washington Metro and suburban Maryland. Far cleaner than the NY Metro, with larger tunnels, suited to D.C., whereas the NY Metro definitely belongs in NY. The announcements by the drivers were hilarious: well timed, and with just that hint of humor.
More squirrels greeted us as we set out for the museums. Today was to be spent mostly inside, watching IMAX films, looking at art, airplanes, spaceships, sculpture, and hunting for more hotdogs. There are so many parts to the Smithsonian, so many buildings and so many subjects. Three days does not do any city justice, especially when the museums absorb days, not hours. One of Michelle's uncles took us on a nighttime tour past the embassies, through various circles, past the National Cathedral, and right back to the Lincoln Memorial. It was an excellent way to get a quick peek at beautiful local Washington without getting completely frustrated driving at night on unknown roads.
Monday brought more museums, more walking, and more beautiful weather. I ended my day with a long walk down the Mall, past the Capitol, up to Union Station, then all the way back to the White House to catch the sunset on a roof deck. I finished with tired feet, but a happy heart.
Tuesday morning was a taxi to the airport and then the long plane-ride home. Did I get to see enough? No, there’s always more. Did I enjoy the trip? Goodness, yes. Will I be back? Definitely! The Smithsonian is an amazing collection, covering so many facets of life, history and people that absorbing it is a lifelong process. The US Government and associated monuments and buildings also hold a fascination for me. I grew up in Alaska, somewhat resignedly sitting through endless (at the time) history and government classes. As my understanding of the importance of history increases, the value of those classes becomes apparent. I look forward to more visits, further wandering through the multiple histories of art, culture, science, and government. I remember my first visits to D.C. being focused on the Air and Space Museum, the centerpiece of cool technology and daring pilots. This trip, I had a companion... my inner mechanical design muse, my voice for engineering solutions. The Viking Lander, Voyager, etc. took on a whole new meaning. They were no longer 'a chunk of metal beyond the Earth's atmosphere.' The engineering took on a new light.
However, even with the coolness of technology, my focus on this trip was less on technology and more on humanity. There are always certain airplanes that make me wriggle in glee, thinking of the design team, the power and the pilots, but it was awe inspiring to see a pair of Russian and US mid-range nuclear missiles displayed side-by-side. This wasn’t just Air and Space technology. This was a study in brinkmanship, a chapter of human history! As my years flow past, I find that accomplishments are less and less about the technology used to get somewhere and more about the human struggles to get somewhere. Knowing the technology of Christopher Columbus doesn't allow us know the voyage, doesn't describe the results of the voyage. However, technology does have a place in history. Developing rocket technology gave humans access to space travel, footprints on the moon, ICBMs, the threat of nuclear winter, the International Space Station, close-up pictures of Jupiter, GPS, and a host of other capabilities. Does the technology itself mean anything? Not without human interaction, the human drive to learn.
Comparing my previous visits again, I had far more respect for the art this visit. Years ago, I didn't know enough about people, hadn't had enough experience with colour and emotion. Sculpture, painting, architecture and people watching all gained deeper perspective on this trip. Interestingly, I had a more visceral response to some contemporary art than I have had to some of the famous painters of past centuries. The immaculate accuracy of portrait painters didn’t really leave me with a feeling, it left me with an impression. It looked like, rather than felt like. Interesting to observe my own change in perspective.
Of course, it begs the question…what’s next?